Jan Christensen is a great writer and friend, one of the first writers I ever really got to know. Her work is exceptional and she’s not nearly as famous (yet) as she should be. I hope you’ll enjoy our chat!
Jan Christensen grew up in New Jersey and now resides in Texas. She’s had two novels and over fifty short stories published in various places over the last dozen years, two of which were nominated for a Derringer Award. Two other stories won a Fire to Fly award and the Mysterical-e 2000 Award for Best Story Previous to 2001. Jan writes a regular column for Mysterical-e about reading.
PJ: Jan, how long have you been writing?
Jan: A long time. A little over twenty years seriously. Before that, I’d write something then not write something for years at a time. Finally got down to it in the early 1990s. I joined a critique group, and that was a big help. More than the critiquing, the idea that I felt I had to have something to submit every two weeks upped my production tremendously. A little-talked-about advantage of critique groups, although some members, maybe even the majority, don’t feel that way. They probably should.
PJ: At what point did you reach a place where you felt successful as a writer?
Jan: I’m not sure. I think it was probably after I had more than ten or so short stories published. Then having a novel published by a small press in 2004 made me think that other people thought my work was good enough to publish, a validation which helped me feel at least somewhat successful.
PJ: Is the writing life what you expected when you started out? If not, how is it different?
Jan: It’s way different. I expected to get some short stories published. Done. I hoped to get a novel published. Done. I hoped to get another novel published in about a year. Well, I had a contract, but the publisher went out of business, and the novel had been sitting with him for almost a year and a half. This was discouraging, to say the least. It slowed me down. I wrote some more novels, more short stories were published (an average of four a year), but I was spinning my wheels because I couldn’t get an agent. Then along came the Kindle and the acceptance of self-publishing. Now I feel as if I’m back in the game. I AM back in the game. But the rules sure have changed. Now I spend more time figuring out marketing than I do writing. But hope to turn that around in the next month or two.
PJ: The general public seems to think authors are relatively wealthy. Without prying too much, has your writing income lived up to expectations?
Jan: Afraid not. Not at all. But I do have hopes for the future.
PJ: Early on, so much focus is given to getting published. Now that you’re published, how has your focus changed?
Jan: It hasn’t really. I see the steps more clearly now, though. Write, edit, publish, market. All different, but all extremely necessary to get where I want to go, which is getting a lot of books and stories out there. It means essentially that I need to work on three different projects at the same time. One, current work-in-progress. Two, edit something else. Three, publish (which includes having the third item edited by a professional, a cover made, and formatted, then uploaded). Then market everything like crazy.
PJ: How long did it take you to get published the first time?
Jan: Once I decided to go for it, only a few months because I saw a contest for short stories in the Fort Worth Star Telegram. I pulled out a short story I’d already written not long before, cut it so it met the 1,000-word limit requirement, and submitted it. And won—not first place, but one of five winners. They’d had over 500 entries. There was that first validation. It was published in the newspaper, and I went looking for a writer’s group. But it took me almost fourteen more years before I got that book contract. I wrote and had published a lot of short stories before writing a second book (first one is hidden away), then a couple more, then submitting.
PJ: Would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again?
Jan: Write more. Submit more. Sometimes I don’t submit anything for weeks on end. Not good. I still have short stories that need to find a home, many of which I wrote years ago. I’d love to have an assistant to do that. Submitting is my least favorite thing in the world to do as far as writing is concerned. It was bad enough when we had to do it via the post office. But with e-subs, the requirements about how to format the sub became more and more convoluted. It could take me an hour just to re-format something to submit to a non-paying market. Now that I rarely submit short stories anymore, I learned from a friend that he never reformatted. He just sent them in, and got them published. I laugh now. Why didn’t I think of that? Now I notice many markets just say, send it in such and such a file (.doc, .rtf, etc.) and are not otherwise particular. Much better, but there are also fewer paying and non-paying markets for short mystery fiction.
PJ: Writing new material, rewriting, submitting new work, waiting, promoting published work…the list is large. How do you manage to divvy up your time to give adequate attention to all needed areas?
Jan: My ideal day looks like this (but I rarely do it all). Write new material first thing every morning—go until I have 1,000 words down. Edit older material for an hour. Check for important email. Lunch, household and other stuff in the afternoons, and two hours after dinner for what I call “writing chores.” This is everything else to do with the job of being a writer. Submitting, research, blogging (my own and on others and commenting on other blogs), joining conversations on writer’s on-line groups, Facebooking, Tweeting, reviewing other people’s work, formatting, and some other things I can’t think of right now.
PJ: What is the single most exciting thing that’s happened to you as a writer?
Jan: You’d think it was getting that first short story or novel published, right? I had always hoped for that, even expected it. But I did a book signing at a Dallas library (thank you for setting that one up, P.J.—it turned out great!) soon after “Sara’s Search” came out, and when I walked into the room, people applauded. I was totally gobsmacked. I actually came to an abrupt halt and looked around the room. And told the group no one had ever applauded for me before. They grinned like crazy. We were a happy bunch after that.
PJ: I wish I could’ve seen that! What is the single most disappointing thing that happened to you as a writer?
Jan: When Quiet Storm, my publisher, went out of business. I knew a lot of the writers he published, too, so it was a huge disappointment for many people I knew. The publisher was such a great person, always trying to come up with things to help us sell our books, doing as much promotion as he could. Cutting edge POD back then. I think he was ahead of his time and probably extended himself and his finances too far and too fast. It was a real shame.
PJ: What’s the most memorable thing (good or bad) that’s happened to you while promoting your work?
Jan: I already mentioned the applause at the library signing. That was wonderful. The worst was I was taking a large suitcase of books down some stairs and pulled the rotator cuff in my shoulder. It hurt so bad, I couldn’t lift the case. A man helped me by taking it down the stairs the rest of the way. It had wheels, so I was able to get to the signing with it. But that shoulder gave me trouble for a couple of weeks, and after that it was very weak for a couple of years. Who knew writing could be dangerous? <grin> This is a cautionary tale for the other writers reading this.
PJ: With more books being released each month now than ever before, what do you believe sets your work apart from the others?
Jan: Voice. It always comes down to voice, doesn’t it? I can usually see the funny or odd side of things, and it comes out in my writing, often at unexpected times (for both me and the reader). My problem is I seem to have two voices. One is light, sardonic, funny and twisty. The other is somber, dark, edgy. I’m afraid some readers won’t like one or the other, so I’m trying hard to let them know what they’re getting into when they pick up one of my short stories or books. On my website, each one has either a white or a black frame around the cover, plus a black or white fedora on the description page. It’s harder to tell with the individual short stories published by magazines or ezines, but often the reader will know what kind of stories those entities publish, so shouldn’t be a problem. If anyone wants to know for sure before reading anything of mine, he or she can always contact me via email. (Contact info on my site.)
PJ: What would you like to share with writers who haven’t reached the point of publication yet?
Jan: Write every day. You can take off one day a week to catch your breath. That’s it. LOL Next, finish everything you begin to write. There’s all kinds of advice out there about writer’s block and how to overcome it. Next, polish it until you’re sick of it. After that, submit it until it’s accepted or you run out of markets or you decide to self-publish it. If you decide to self-publish it, do it! Then market. Read all you can on blogs like this and on good email lists. Murder Must Advertise (MMA) is a good one, and for short mystery stories, the Short Mystery Fiction Society (SMFS) that gives out the Derringer award every year is fantastic. (Plug ahead—I’ve been nominated for two.)
PJ: What do you feel is your most effective tool for promoting your published work?
Jan: I’m not sure. I think it’s a toss-up between blogging, Facebook and Twitter. I think you need to do all three on a regular basis.
PJ: What area of book promotion is the most challenging to you?
Jan: All of it. <grin> But live performances are really tough, so I like social networking better.
Give us a list of your published titles in chronological or series order:
Jan: Okay. I’m only going to list my two novels, my short story collection, and four short stories that are stand-alone ebooks from Untreed Reads Publishing. You don’t want a list of my over 50 published short stories, I’m sure. <grin> That list is available on my website, if anyone’s interested.
Organized to Death (coming out in a month or two—light)
Short Stories (all light, all with the same cover except for the title)
Artie and the Red-Headed Woman
Artie and the Green-Eyed Woman
Artie and the Brown-Eyed Woman
Short Stories Collection
Warning Signs (three previously published stories, Signs is the first in a series)
Share with us an elevator pitch (no more than 30 seconds) of your latest title:
This is for “Revelations”: After a dark secret shakes Kirk Hudson’s faith, he escapes from the religious cult he’s been a member of for over two years. The night he arrives home, his twin brother is brutally murdered. Now Kirk must return to the cult to find out if the secrets harbored there caused his beloved brother’s death.
Where can we buy it?
Amazon, in either ebook or paperback. Search for Revelations and my last name because there are several other books with the same title. Here’s a direct link: http://amzn.to/OQATKF
PJ: What last thing would you like to share with us that nobody knows about you and your work?
Jan: I’ve told several people this, but I think it’s worth repeating. I have faith in my subconscious coming up with some great stuff without my conscious help. So, when I’m in draft mode, I simply let it flow. I take no credit for what that part of my mind is doing. I assume it comes from an accumulation of everything I’ve ever seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled and learned. We all have a unique life. We all have stories to tell. Once I began to totally trust that the words would flow out of me, I let it happen. The real work comes in cleaning it up a bit. But I really don’t have to spend a lot of time doing that, either, usually (there are always exceptions). When writing your drafts, don’t second-guess yourself.. Let your imagination fly. You’ll be amazed about where it will take you. And your readers will thank you.
Patti, thanks so much for having me on your blog. It’s a great place to be.
Excellent advice, Jan! Thanks so much for sharing with us. Readers, if you haven’t already, this is one writer you’ve got to read. I’d love to hear your comments about Jan’s work!